“Weirdos and Culture”

Michael Blowhard discusses. Worth reading for the anecdotes about Susan Sontag and other wacko culturati, and also for the main idea. Strange, difficult people may or may not be overrepresented in the arts, but there certainly are a lot of such characters among successful people in some walks of life. Some of these people have obviously gotten under Michael’s skin, and this is one of his more forceful essays (and the better for it).

6 thoughts on ““Weirdos and Culture””

  1. The modern world matches personalities to jobs. I think that “culture” type work, usually in the Arts in some fashion, attracts marginal individuals because for the most part they only have to function intermittently.

    Being an Artist is a good job for someone with bipolar disorder, for example, because they can churn out work when they are manic and just sit and stare at the wall when they’re depressed. Its not like other work, such as say farming, where one’s schedule is set by wholly external factors that are utterly indifferent to ones internal mental states. A farmer works when mother nature tells him to not just when inspiration strikes.

    I think that during the early days of industrialization, when people where just starting to have the option of choosing a career, selection pushed people who could only function intermittently into the Arts. Very soon it evolved into its own subculture in which dysfunctional behavior was not only expected but cele-brated as mark of being part of a special elite. Even the broader general culture gives Artistic types permission to act in ways that it does not tolerate in others.

    So we have this kind of Darwinian mechanism that sucks unstable people into the “culture” world and then lets them all stew together. The results are not pretty as I can personally attest.

  2. Thanks for the link. I think Shannon’s onto the main thing. A couple of things that characterize the arts: very hard to objectively evaluate anything; and no structure. So people who have immense fantasies about themselves that they don’t want tested probably see the field as their kinda place. I wonder about fields like the law, or engineering … Do the tests, the skills, the structures, the rules: do they, I dunno, keep their crazies a little more in line? Or at least get them to focus and narrow the craziness, and stay in line (if only a bit) as people? In the arts, distortion takes over fast, and so you wind up with an upside-down value hierarchy. V. exhausting to deal with …

  3. MB,

    No experience in the arts, but I’ve known and known of a number of people in the world of finance who made everyone’s skin crawl but were tolerated because they made a lot of money. I think, pace Shannon, that the world now tends more than ever to match skills to jobs, personalities be damned. In some occupations that are driven by technical performance rather than people or management skills (e.g., trading), often the more producive you are the more loutish you can be in your personal behavior.

  4. A quick take:
    When I get to the fifties and sixties in my survey course, my students are always surprised by the way my generation (especially those that thought of themselves as artistes no matter how vague their art might be) saw art inextricably linked to insanity. This may still be true; I no longer have much patience with those that push eccentricity very far, but bi-polar and alcoholism do seem to occur disproportionately among writers (and the great ones as well as those that seem to be acting the role).

    I do think that the fifties and sixties (the pre-sixties sixties, actually) tended to see Freud as having more answers than it turns out he did. I can give you endless examples of friends whose destructive or self-destructive behavior they saw as an expression of their unique take on life. Karl Shapiro opened our class in the early sixties railing about the local mental hospital. (Ginsberg & others occasionally wandered through Lincoln to talk to him in those days.)

    The most extreme sense that psychoanalysis could solve a child’s problem is the core of Emily Fox Gordon’s sometimes profound and always interesting autobiography, , Mockingbird: a Life In and Out of Therapy. Her parents, faced with a child whose abilities were unusual, believed the solution was psychoanalysis.

    I suspect the truth was that many of my friends, of about her age, secretly thought the idea of such a long-term, on-the-couch-from-pre-pubescence therapy was quite attractive. And, frankly, our parents (the ones like mine who had read Freud and taken him quite seriously in the fifties) probably felt that they were not doing their duty by us because they couldn’t afford such intensive introspection. Among crowds like mine, people did not root for baseball teams; they did, however, see themselves as adherents of Freud or Jung or Adler. (And don’t ask me about what we thought – certainly don’t ask me to compare these today. I don’t think I understood any of it then and probably even less now.)

    If you spend your whole time looking at your naval you do tend to lose proportion.

    Sure this is linked to the death wish, loss of the life force, solipsism, narcissism, technology, etc. etc. But these were in some cases derived from and in some cases reinforced by our layman’s view of psychiatry. And if being crazy is “in,” then, people are likely to think themselves into craziness.

  5. Jonathan’s insight about skill rather than personality is correct. Peter Drucker talks about this in The Effective Executive. Business talent is rare. Good managers do what they need to do to minimize the effect of difficult personalities to take advantage of the talent. Anyone can manage nice people. The problem is that talented people often also have quirks or worse. Getting the best out of them and keeping everything else going is a challenge.

    As to the arts community, I have some exposure to it in Chicago. Michael’s point that it is inhabited by many people who fled from and hate the “normal” world is exactly right. Many of these people have inflated opinions of their own talent, nay genius, and some of them get embittered as the world fails to recognize their greatness. I think this is much more intensely the case in New York or LA than in Chicago, a place where common sense and practicality exude from the cement. I think people who stay in Chicago know they are not going for the Big Time, so they are free to get day jobs with health insurance and to do art because they like it and want to. So, the whole atmosphere is more benign. The sociopathic ones move to New York or LA, to fight their way up the greasy pole.

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